The rains are increasing, the rivers are rising, lake levels are at record levels. Aging infrastructure is overwhelmed and flooding follows, damaging property and threatening lives.

And there’s nothing you can really do to fight Mother Nature.

Actually, there is something that can be done, according to researchers at the University of Michigan, who have included Berrien County in their water control studies, along with Ann Arbor and other cities.

“In the era of the self-driving car, can the same level of autonomy and ‘intelligence’ be embedded in our water systems?” questions Branko Kerkez, as an assistant professor at U-M leading a team that is developing smart water systems that use technology to monitor water flow and quality. “By coupling the flow of water with the flow of information, modern water systems will make automated decisions based on an intimate knowledge of their overall state, permitting them to be instantly redesigned to adapt to changing needs and inputs.”

Some of the monitors have been installed along sections of Ox Creek, according to Berrien County Drain Commissioner Christopher Quattrin. The data can be connected to smart drains that are opened and closed based on predicted rainfall and water levels.

The technology can be used to control flashing along creeks – the sudden bursts of water that cause erosion – and the level of lakes, Quattrin said.

“Floods are the leading cause of severe weather fatalities across the United States,” Kerkez notes in an article. Storms wash sediment and pollutants into streams and rivers, and eventually into lakes.

Communities use pipes, bonds and wetlands to control the surge of water. But much of this infrastructure is reaching the end of its lifespan, and is expensive to replace.

One area where the technology could be applied, at Paw Paw Lake, already has a pipe large enough for two people to stand inside, Quattrin said. Even with this large outlet, flooding is still experienced around the lake.

Information gathered by the sensors would be relayed to SmartValves, that would divert water when storms are expected, and release the water gradually. The lake level could be reduced before additional water flows in.

In addition to relieving flooding, holding the water would allow for the settling of sediments, which would improve water quality, the drain commissioner said.

All of this can be accomplished at the fraction of the cost of installing larger pipes. The smart valves only cost a few thousand dollars, compared to hundreds of thousands to install new stormwater pipes.

Another area where the technology could be useful is at three inland lakes in the Grand Mere area, that drain into Lake Michigan. But with the lake levels rising, the water can’t get out, Quattrin said.

With the high-tech valves, water could be moved to the south lake and to wetlands.

“It would help nature run its course,” Quattrin said.

The technology promises “a huge savings,” he added.

The Ann Arbor pilot project installed 10 to 20 sensors per square mile over a three-square mile area, that provide data to two wireless valves to control flows from a stormwater basin.

According to an online article, before the test system was installed, it cost Ann Arbor $22 per gallon to drain stormwater. The system’s smart capabilities decreased that cost to $16 per gallon, saving the city around $1 million in infrastructure costs. The project also is part of Ann Arbor’s wetlands restoration plan, and is already having an effect.

South Bend is partnering with Ann Arbor to test the system. The National Science Foundation awarded a $1.8 million grant, one of only three in the nation funded at this level, to the University of Michigan to continue testing this approach.

Quattrin hopes that the technology can help to clean up Ox Creek, which is considered the most polluted creek in Southwest Michigan and one of the dirtiest in the state. Quattrin’s office and the Southwest Michigan Planning Commission are partners in a $1.2 million project that they hope will be the first phase toward cleaning up the creek that flows into the Paw Paw River and Lake Michigan.

Contact: jmatuszak@TheHP.com, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak